Saturday, 20 April 2013

A Secret Kept - Tatiana de Rosnay

I bought A Secret Kept on the basis of having read de Rosnay's Sarah's Key after seeing the movie of the same name. Some time, I'll go back and re-read that one and do a post on it as well. A Secret Kept is a beast of a different colour in some respects - the underlying subject matter is quite different. Having said that, de Rosnay uses a similar structural device - memory, different time zones and personal perspectives of the one story mean that the whole story unravels unpredictably, out of sequence, and isn't complete until the very end.
The narrative begins in a drab waiting room of a provincial hospital where Antoine, shocked and alone, is waiting to hear whether his sister Melanie will survive the car crash they've just had while driving home from his surprise long weekend for her fortieth birthday. Antoine's internal dialogue is the spine of this section, setting the pace for the rest of the novel, which centres largely on Antoine's journey of discovery about the secrets of his childhood - secrets that began when his mother died.

Antoine and Melanie had, up to that point, enjoyed a happy childhood with their loving, if slightly distant father, their mother - whom both children idolised - and their sternly traditionally upper class grandparents and aunt, with whom they shared the annual family holiday to the island where the siblings had spent their long weekend. Antoine took Melanie there to begin a process of uncovering the mysteries surrounding their mother's death, which have begun, increasingly and in the wake of his divorce, to haunt him. He wants Melanie to join him on his quest, to help him find the truth of his mother's death and why in the aftermath she became a complete non-topic in their lives and their father withdrew so totally from them.

Melanie is ambivalent, and it is partly this, and a secret that she alludes to in the moment before, that cause her to loose both focus and control of the car.

What could become an overly intense internal monologue, given the focus is so weighted by Antoine's experience is rescued by interspersed letters - in italics and with no introduction or other context-providing devices - from Antoine's mother to an unknown party. It gradually becomes clear they were written to a lover during that last summer holiday before she died, but the identity of the lover isn't disclosed. Initially, they are a disembodied extra voice, but as Antoine progresses with his search, running the gauntlet of his antagonistic stepmother to brave his ailing father, bearding his grandmother, and enlisting the unwilling help of the reluctant Melanie, the voice from the past in the letters comes to be stronger and more embodied.

Antoine, crippled by his love for his now remarried wife has all but shut down on his life at the point where the story begins. He has to deal with his increasingly alienated children who arrive for their regular weekends but appear to be growing away from him fast. At the hospital with Melanie, he meets the enigmatic, motorcycle riding mortician, Angele, who seduces him and opens his eyes to the possibility of a life post-divorce.He digs and delves for clues about his mother, using the project as a means to re-activate his life.

While there is an end point to the search and he does uncover the story, it is the search and the often surprising other, unrelated discoveries along the way that ultimately become the more important element of this novel. On reading this, my second de Rosnay novel, I'd have to say that stylistically, she is particularly adept at creating a gripping narrative from the smallest and most mundane elements of ordinary lives. The most obviously dramatic moment in the book is the crash at the beginning, but that is really just a catalyst that shakes Antoine out of the living rigor mortis he's allowed himself to reach in his funk about picking himself up after his divorce, his apathy about declining relationships within the family and a shrinking circle of friends. It was an absorbing read, and one I'd recommend for one of those quiet afternoons when you want something that will hold you without requiring the more rigorous energy of an old classic.

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